The Changing, Unchanging Legislature

Michael Roberson | Photo by Zack W

Michael Roberson | Photo by Zack W

All of Nevada’s assembly seats and about half of the state senate seats are up for election this fall. How much does this matter? A lot and not at all.

The state senate could tip Republican, making for important changes in committee composition. The majority party controls committee memberships, which can affect what those committees discuss and where they distribute money. Democratic state senator Justin Jones in District 9 is a particular target for Republicans. But there’s also a chance that District 8, long held by Republican Barbara Cegavske, who was term-limited, could swing to Democrat Marilyn Dondero Loop.

Which party is in control won’t mean much in terms of legislators’ ability to challenge the governor, however. Raising taxes and overriding vetoes require two-thirds majorities in both houses. The assembly majority is less than two-thirds and figures to remain so. The state senate is split, 11-10, and won’t change that dramatically even if party control changes.

Party affiliation may also diminish in importance if, indeed, southern Nevada legislators are serious about working together. Clark County currently holds a 15-6 majority in the state senate and 30-12 in the assembly. That’s more than two-thirds. In theory, the legislature could pass a budget shutting down the state of Nevada north of the Clark County line, and have the votes to override Sandoval’s veto. That won’t happen, but the increased emphasis on regional unity could begin to change our political landscape.

Ironically, Democratic stronghold Clark County might in some ways fare better with Republicans in charge of the state senate. If Democrats retain control, the chair of the most important committee, finance, will remain in the hands of Washoe County’s Debbie Smith. But if Republicans took over, the logical chair would be their leader, Michael Roberson, who represents … Clark County.

Roberson isn’t taking his position for granted. Right-wing Republicans upset with him and fellow southern Nevada Republican Lynn Stewart, the assistant minority leader in the Assembly, for compromising a little on taxes are mounting primary challenges against them. Roberson faces Carl Bunce and Stewart is up against Richard Bunce (yes, they’re brothers). It’s unlikely that the Bunces’ far-right base is large enough to make a difference, but as the old saying goes, politicians run for office two ways: unopposed or scared.

Turnout will be crucial for both parties in the few truly competitive legislative races. Democrats are putting a great deal on the shoulders of Lucy Flores, their candidate for lieutenant governor, but if she draws women and Hispanics in what figures to be a tough race, that could help them. Similarly, Democrat Erin Bilbray’s challenge to Representative Joe Heck could energize women in that district, to the benefit of Democratic legislative candidates.

With time and money to expend on behalf of Republican candidates, Gov. Brian Sandoval may help turnout, as would the efforts of whoever wins the lieutenant governor’s primary between Mark Hutchison and Sue Lowden, and the party’s need to protect Heck.

Meanwhile, one particular assembly race to watch is in District 4. Republican incumbent Michelle Fiore faces Democrat Jeff Hinton, a former Marine who was just the Nevada Teacher of the Year, in a slightly Democratic district. Will the teachers union strain every nerve for one of their own? And will it hurt Fiore that she has been engaged in Twitter wars with Jon Ralston, whose reporting influences both donors and fellow journalists? Time will tell.